Cloak of Deception
by James Luceno
Published by Del Ray
Scott's Rating: 2.5 out of 4
Chris's Rating: 3 out of 4
Michael's Rating: 3 out of 4
Before the events in Episode I, Darth Sidious is in the middle of his plans. As Senator Palpatine he politically manipulates Supreme Chancellor Valorum and the other senators. As the Sith Master, he begins to slowly put the Neimoidians and the Trade Federation in position for his blockade of Naboo.
A terrorist group named the Nebula Front threatens the activities of the Trade Federation. They are protesting the actions of the group and will resort to any means necessary to disrupt the Trade Federation. They hire Captain Cohl to carry out terrorist acts against their business. However, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan are hot on the trail of the terrorists and thwart their plans.
Fearing more trouble, the Trade Federation petitions the Senate to allow them to increase their number of droid fighters, battledroids, and other defenses. Valorum considers this, but only if he can tax some of the trade routes they hold (on advice from Palpatine). This sparks a debate and a summit is scheduled to be held on the matter.
Taking extreme measures, the Nebula Front sets plans in motion to assassinate Supreme Chancellor Valorum at the summit to prevent the taxation. The Jedi Council, along with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, step in to track down Captain Cohl and the would-be assassins.
This book is also a prequel to Darth Maul - Shadow Hunter. It is also preceded by the e-book Darth Maul - Saboteur.
There's one thing in my mind that makes this book stand out from the other recent releases - Cloak of Deception is packed with clues to Episode II. As of the release date of the book (June 2001), many details about Episode II have not been officially released. However, through various means, TheForce.Net and other sites have been able to dig up character and organization names we'll see in the film. Many of them appear officially for the first time in this novel. I won't give details on who they are just now, but it's an interesting note for trivia buffs. None of it is spoiler material, though, if you don't know anything behind it.
There are a lot of great cameos in this book including Jorus C'Boath (later seen as a mad clone in the Zahn books), Governor Tarkin, Vergere (later seen in Rogue Planet and the New Jedi Order), and others. This makes the book fun and adds some spice to it (so to speak).
It's interesting to see a book detail the rise of Senator Palpatine from lowly Outer Rim senator to the confidante of the Supreme Chancellor. You get to see Palpatine manipulating anyone and everyone while totally being concealed in his actions. This rise of Palpatine is also set against the fall of King Veruna and election of Queen Amidala. You get the distinct impression Palpatine is involved there, too. But that's a story for another time.
What works for me is that the intricate backstory of Episode I is explored for the first time, and done so in a way that sustains interest and makes sense (one of "Shadow Hunter"'s main failings). Yes there's Episode II stuff in there, and pre-TPM Expanded Universe stuff. And guess what? It all fits nicely, really making the whole SW universe feel like one unified saga.
Even better is that Luceno is able to enrich and deepen the Neimoidian characters, making them seem like more (if only a LITTLE more) than the one-dimensional, movie-serial-stock-villains we were served up in the movie. These guys are neither totally cowardly, nor totally stupid.
One of the main aspects that I thoroughly enjoyed while reading James Luceno's 'Cloak of Deception' was his political intrigue. While my fellow reviewer Scott did not appreciate the above aspects of the novel, I had been longing for this for a long time. In theforce.net's literature forum, I had been a long proponent of a Palpatine type biography, a political thriller. While the novel is not solely a biography on Palpatine, Luceno does a fantastic job of extrapolating the character from the dialogue and scenes presented in 'The Phantom Menace'. The book satisfies many of the observed shortcomings of Episode I, in that it explains the backstory of the Trade Federations reasons for the blockade of Naboo. Luceno balances the book well by switching between politics and action, the latter focusing on the Jedi and specifically Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's pursuit of Nebula Front Captain, Cohl.
The Episode II tidbit's sprinkled through the book are a great tie-in the forthcoming film, as were the other little nods to continuity, such as cameo's by Jorus C'Baoth, Sate Pestage and Kinman Doriana, Tarkin and Vergere.
Lastly, George Lucas stated that one of his main reasons for doing the prequel trilogy was to change our perception of the classic trilogy, once we have the full picture in view. I believe that the prequel books have started to help this change in view, especially when Tarkin says in ANH that the Emperor has disbanded the Senate. We are starting to realise how powerful that line of dialogue is, because we are being shown how important a role the Senate played in the life and politics of the Old Republic. The Senate is diverse with alien representation and ideological views, but we will gradually see a transformation to the bigotry of the Empire.
Did you enjoy the talk about tax, blockades, and politics in Episode I? Did you find the Senate scene to be the more interesting parts of the film? If so, then this book is for you. If not, then you'll probably be bored with this novel. Except for the clues to Episode II, this novel did not really interest me. I got a little bit tired of all the politics, sub-plots, and intrigue. The cover of the novel, featuring Chancellor Valorum, should be the first clue that this is more of a political thriller than an action adventure. Unfortunately, action and adventure are what I enjoy most about Star Wars.
I also found myself frequently lost as to what was going on. I lost track of who was doing what and why. The only time the various sub-plots became clear was when it was all over.
This is not a bad Star Wars book by any means. It is interesting and it does fill in an important piece of the Star Wars saga. However, it was just not my cup of blue milk.
I personally enjoyed the political material myself. This story reminds me most strongly of "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country." And don't worry, there is plenty of Jedi whoop-@$$ in this book. But as far as bad, I wish the character of Finis Valorum could have been gone into in a little more detail. Yes, Valorum's rich political family is mentioned, but I would have loved to have seen them. And also to have known more of his motivations, whether he genuinely wanted to help the Republic or was really nursing a grudge against the TF -- and if so, for what reason. This is a character we're not likely to see any of in the post-TPM era, so it would have helped to flesh him out a little more.
I would have liked more backstory into the Nebula Front, to discover more of their motivations. Perhaps Bail Antilles could have had an expanded role, and would have been nice to learn what the differences are between him and Bail Organa, but perhaps that is for a later book. What I also would have liked explained is why Sidious wanted the Neimoidians running the Trade Federation. Yes, we know that their motivating factor is lust and greed, however, humans are capable of the emotional trait as well! I would have liked to have known more about the other members of the Trade Federation directorate.
Luceno gets into detail on some pretty nasty blaster wounds. Doesn't sound like much fun.
The same as my fellow reviewers . . . a blaster shot to the face doesn't sound very nice at all!